Addressing the Problem
Not everyone is convinced the centers will make a dent in the problems plaguing New York City’s foster care system, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit. Children in the system spend twice as long in custody as children in the rest of the country, according to city records.
“There are many, many families that are not getting the appropriate services,” says Marcia Lowery, a child welfare attorney and the executive director of A Better Childhood, which is representing 19 foster children who are suing the city.
“The centers are a nice idea,” Lowery says, “but they’re not going to address the basic problem.”
The New York centers, which opened this year, are part of a three-year demonstration project. Each center is staffed with a director, one or two parent advocates, and a community liaison, and operates on a $450,000 annual budget, funded by the city.
Family enrichment centers are confidential, which means that families get support without being tracked in the system. Although if staff suspect or witness child abuse, they are mandated to report it to child welfare authorities.
The centers can assist visitors with job training, financial literacy, connections to after-school activities, homework help. And there are support groups and “parent cafes,” facilitated discussions for moms and dads.
The centers are open to the whole community, but they’re truly meant for families who are “one emergency away from a crisis,” Lopez says. “This is all about prevention.”
Before the center even opens, community members are consulted about the services and activities they need, which creates anticipation early on, he says. Once the center opens, word of mouth and social media generate more interest. People drop by and see a host of activities geared to them.
“This isn’t like walking into a social services agency, where they’re trying to see if you deserve to be there,” Lopez says. “We want to attract the people who normally won’t come in until they’re broken.”
The vast majority – nearly 75 percent – of child welfare investigations involve allegations of neglect, rather than physical or sexual abuse. And typically, incidents of neglect have their roots in poverty, says Dana Weiner, a policy fellow at the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, who has researched how family enrichment centers can best serve their communities.
That means parents might be having a hard time providing their kids with stable housing, food, clothing or heat, she says. For these families, the centers can make a difference.
“It’s a much, much cheaper, more effective way to meet a family’s needs before they become involved in the child welfare system,” Weiner says.
To illustrate this point, the C.R.I.B.’s Layne offers a hypothetical: Let’s say that winter is coming, and Jimmy doesn’t have a coat. If Jimmy goes to school in the cold, and his teachers notice he isn’t wearing a coat, they’re going to call child protective services – and his mom will end up with a case because she didn’t have the money to buy him a winter coat.
The C.R.I.B. can help the mom figure out how to get help finding Jimmy a coat before it’s ever an issue, she says. Or if his behavior is driving his mom nuts, to encourage her to get help. “We’re not going to wait until Jimmy goes to school and says something crazy and all of a sudden you’re mandated to therapy.”
The key philosophy behind the family enrichment centers is that parents ultimately know best, and the centers are just there to help families figure out how to get what they need to live better lives, Layne said.
“People are resourceful,” she says.
“We would like to be the place that’s so comfortable that they’re not afraid to tell us some of the things they probably wouldn’t tell just anybody,” she says. “And by doing so, we’re hoping we will be reducing the connection to child welfare.”
Participation is voluntary, and because families aren’t recorded in the system, it’s hard to know how many have been helped. Each family enrichment center in New York is expected to serve about a thousand families a year, while each of New Jersey’s 56 centers is expected to serve 250 each year, according to Lopez.
One New Jersey showcase is the Liberty Family Success Center in Kearny, a working-class burg just a short train ride from Manhattan. It’s a little bit urban, a little suburban, a onetime mill town with a large population of immigrants from Colombia, Egypt, Peru and Central America.
Liberty occupies the first floor of an apartment building tucked into a commercial strip here. Inside, signs in Spanish and English advertise social services. Preschoolers play in the front of the room with a staffer while Kimberly Martinez, 29, and Victoria Castro, 24, two stay-at-home moms, talk about their growing involvement with Liberty.
When she first came to the center, Castro says, she was at her wits’ end trying to care for her 3-year-old son while her husband worked. “I was just done.”
In the past, she’s used social services such as Medicaid and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), but Castro says dealing with the agencies left her feeling like she was just a problem to be solved by cutting a check.
At Liberty, she found friendship with other moms, support and respite from 24/7 child care – as well as an increased appreciation for her own capabilities. She volunteers at the center now.
“I’m a young mom, but I’m still very capable,” Castro says. “I’d like to be looked at with respect. Here, I’m not looked at like a charity or a problem with society. I’m looked at like an asset.”